Who’s On My Coffee Table? Candida Höfer! In My Head? The Haunting Image of the ‘Afghan Girl’

Candida Höfer, Foyer vor der Aula ETH Zurich, 2005
Candida Höfer, Foyer vor der Aula ETH Zurich, 2005

Right now on my coffee table I have a photopictorial book that I picked up in Lisbon by Candida Höfer that takes the awed page-turner through the grand halls, foyers, and bedrooms of almost-but-not-quite fabled estates of the Lisbon hinterlands.

Candida Höfer’s exhibition(s) take viewers on an international tour of rooms, both public and private, in schools, palaces, operas, libraries and villas – empty of humans but full of dazzling design and decorative detail.

It’s dreamy.

Without a doubt, the coffee table book does a better job of showing me Portugal than I saw with my own eyes. At least, it does a better job NOW in appealing to my sense of wistfulness for travel than my own memory could serve me (my own pictures run second, I suppose). We had a great time splintering off from the beaten path to palaces in Sintra, Mafra, and Queluz, and I’ll remember the shimmering blues and whites of the vivid tilework. But if I have to be real, I know that in my mind’s eye that trip is not shaped by my memories, but by the coffee table book.

In short, hurrah for photography, because oh how it makes memories last! 

And they also capture timeless emotion.

Today I was re-reading the article about National Geographic’s trip back 2002 to find the woman captured in the iconic photograph of the “Afghan Girl” taken in 1985 by Steve McCurry. The image he captured really hit a chord with people all over the world because it so eloquently portrayed her struggle. It’s hard to imagine a piece of artwork that does more to evoke such feeling from the viewer.

By the way, I also have two other books on my coffee table at the moment (they rotate) —  a photojournalism book on Paris, and another one on Helsinki — that are just waiting for me to dive into again. Armchair travel — while definitely not preferred over the real thing — can substitute in a pinch, when you need that traveling “fix.” Or when you want to feel a deep emotional pull.


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